Arthur Seldon, intellectual architect of both Blairism and Thatcherism,
died on October 11th, aged 89.
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers...are more
powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled
by little else. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air,
are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few
years back." So wrote John Maynard Keynes, the economic architect
of the welfare state and the Great Society, and he should have known.
But it was Arthur Seldon who took Keynes's words to heart, and paid
him back in kind. Mr Seldon marshalled the academic scribblers of
his own era to lead the intellectual fight-back against Keynesianism,
distilling from free-market economic doctrines ideas that fuelled
both the frenzy of Thatcherism and its afterburn, Tony Blair.
The perch from which Mr Seldon directed this campaign was a think-tank,
the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which he joined as Editorial
Director in 1958. The IEA was founded in l955 by an old-Etonian
chicken farmer called Antony Fisher. Concerned by the waves of nationalisations
and economic controls in post-war Britain, Mr Fisher sought advice
from the one intellectual who was resisting the tide, an Austrian-born
economist, Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek urged him to emulate the Fabian
Society, the first socialist think-tank, which had done so much
to spread the doctrine of state intervention at the beginning of
the century. He should do so, however, from the opposite, free-market
point of view.
Fisher's first recruit, as director of the new think-tank, was Ralph
Harris, and his second was Mr Seldon. Together they made a formidable
team, in place until the mid-1980s, by which time they had moved
from the outer fringes to the mainstream of British politics. Mr
Harris was the IEA's public face; Mr Seldon, the more thoughtful
of the two, was its resident intellectual. A pronounced stutter
meant that he seldom spoke in public. But as Editorial Director
he oversaw the institute's highly influential publishing programme.
The IEA's pamphlets, modelled on Fabian ones, brought to the lay
reader the ideas of all the leading free-market economists and thinkers
of the day. Many of those subjects-reform of the trade unions, public
versus private welfare, the virtues of floating exchange rates-became
the main preoccupations of the Thatcherites in the 1980s. Mr Seldon's
target audience was what he called the "second-hand dealers
in ideas": journalists,teachers,academics, businessmen and
city analysts who create the intellectual environment in which politicians
have to work. Mr Seldon's golden rule was that his authors should
think of their subjects regardless of the political context. They
were to expound the verities of economic liberalism and let the
politicians come to them, rather than the other way round. It took
quite a long time for this to happen; but eventually, from the mid-1960s,
the politicians began to arrive. As Britain's economic problems
piled up, a trickle of radical Conservatives such as Enoch Powell,
Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe started getting involved in
the IEA's work, looking for free-market alternatives.
Mr Seldon, however, kept away from active politics. Having seen
war service in Africa and Italy, he picked a military metaphor:
the IEA would be the long-range artillery lobbing shells into enemy
lines, "but it would never be the infantry, engaged in the
short-term face-to-face grappling." In the mid-1970s, as the
Thatcherite revolution got under way, other think-tanks, such as
the Centre for Policy Studies, were founded to do the grappling.
A classic liberal
In many ways Mr Seldon was a quintessential Thatcherite, if never
a Conservative. He was born in the East End of London, to Russian-Jewish
immigrants, but lost both parents in the 'flu epidemic of 1918,
when he was three. Adopted by a cobbler, learning to repair shoes
himself, he became a natural and lifelong believer in self-help.
He won a state scholarship to the London School of Economics, where
he was inspired to his life's work by Hayek, who was one of his
Rather than a Tory, Mr Seldon was essentially a classic liberal.
Much of his early life was devoted to trying to revive the Gladstonian
roots of the Liberal Party, even as it succumbed to the influence
of Keynes and others. He always regretted that it was the Conservative
Party that took up the IEA's agenda, not the Liberal
Party, where his free-market ideas really belonged. This marked
him out from most Thatcherites, who, much as they adored economic
freedom, often had a Tory dislike of individual liberty in other
His distance from party politics made him a natural source of wisdom
when the next generation of intellectuals came along, in the early
1990s, to try to end the hegemony of Conservatism. Copying Mr
Seldon's formula, they started think-tanks such as Demos to create
a new intellectual climate that would eventually contribute to Mr
Blair's landslide election victory in 1997. Not only had Mr Seldon
way that politicians went about their business, establishing the
"battle of ideas" as equal in importance to party politics.
Through his tireless campaigning he had also ensured that New Labour
would only be taken seriously if it became, essentially, a free-market
party as well.